Challenging the Dogma
Most people have heard of the term ‘plant-based nutrition’; in fact, it has become synonymous with eating healthy. The increase in awareness around how food influences our state of health has driven many to cut back on their meat consumption and look for plant-based alternatives instead. While I don’t doubt that this has led to many people improving their health and feeling better, I don’t believe that it’s the best way of eating if we are looking to optimise nutrition and live long, healthy lives. In fact, I would go one step further and posit my opinion that the over-consumption of certain plant-based foods may be having a detrimental effect upon some people’s health.
Nutrient Superiority of Animal-Based Foods
If we are looking to optimise nutrition, it’s important that we understand the term ‘nutrient density’ — the concentration of vitamins and minerals present in any given food. Animal foods are by far the most nutrient dense, which is why I use the term ‘animal-based nutrition’ to describe a diet that prioritises animal foods — such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy — over plant-based foods. This isn’t to say that plant-based foods can’t be part of a healthy diet, because they can, but in my opinion, they shouldn’t replace more nutrient dense animal-based foods when available.
The nutrient comparison chart highlights the nutrient superiority of animal-based foods. Typically, animal-based foods tend to be higher in B vitamins, minerals (iron, zinc & selenium), protein, and fat. Furthermore, there are a number of nutrients only found in appreciable amounts within these foods, including the fat-soluble vitamins: D3, A, and K2, the essential omega-3 fatty acids: DHA and EPA, and cholesterol.
Another important factor that highlights the superiority of animal-based foods is the increased bioavailability of certain nutrients, which is the process of digestion, absorption, and metabolisation of nutrients in the body. Examples of these nutrients include heme iron, found in red meat, and the active form of vitamin A, retinol, which is found in fish and eggs but not plants.
There are some nutrients that tend to be found in higher amounts in plant-based foods, including vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, and vitamin B9. That isn’t to say that they aren’t present in animal-based foods, but they are only found in appreciable amounts in organ meats. For this reason, when formulating an animal-based diet, I think it’s important to prioritise organ meats, especially liver, which is arguably the most nutrient dense food of all.
When incorporating plants into our diet, it’s important to recognise that all such foods exist on a scale of toxicity. In order to protect themselves from predation, plants produce natural compounds or toxins that can be harmful to those who are sensitive. Some of these compounds, such as lectins and phytic acids found in whole grains and legumes, may interfere with mineral absorption and thus reduce the bioavailability of these foods; these are known as anti-nutrients (1). Other plant-derived compounds act as natural pesticides, such as solanine, produced by the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes & peppers), which may have neurotoxic properties (2), and curcumin, found in turmeric, which acts as a pro-oxidant (3), meaning that it may cause oxidative damage in the body.
Most people will now be thinking ‘but wait a minute, I’ve always been told that eating too much red meat and saturated fat is bad for me?’ While this is an extremely popular notion, this assumption does not hold up when looking at the totality of scientific research from the last few decades. This notion is based upon inconsistent findings from questionable observational studies, which are not designed to show causation. Briefly, a pitfall of observational studies is that they are confounded by ‘healthy user bias’, a term used to describe the impact of different dietary and lifestyle behaviours on health outcomes. With red meat for example being presented as unhealthy in mainstream media, it is often assumed that someone looking to improve their health would not only avoid red meat but also excess sugar, processed foods, and other documented ‘unhealthy foods’, as well as commit to exercising more frequently. It is this type of assumption and stereotyping of a health-conscious person that pollutes the findings, as studies can neither account for nor verify this. Moreover, it overlooks the probable reality there are many people who will have cut out red meat as well as the foods commonly eaten with it. Therefore, it is hard to distinguish whether it is the over consumption of red meat, or the burger, chips, and coca cola that is linked to cancer or heart disease.
How Animal-Based Foods Made us Human
It is worth mentioning that the available archaeological evidence further supports the idea that humans evolved relying heavily on an animal-based diet, with stable nitrogen isotope studies revealing that ancient humans ate more animal protein than wild carnivorous animals today (4). The ‘expensive tissue hypothesis’ is one possible way in which early humans evolved into the modern-day man. This hypothesis suggests that the increase in consumption of nutrient dense foods such as meat and fish, which contain more bioavailable nutrients, led to the shrinkage of the gastrointestinal tract and an increase in the size of the human brain. Although we cannot be certain that this was the case, what we do know, in part from the work of Weston A. Price, who in the early 1900s studied the diet and physical health of a number of diverse non-western cultures across the globe, is that they all consumed animal foods as part of their diet. He proclaimed that as non-Western groups abandoned indigenous diets and adopted western patterns of living, they showed increases in typical western diseases. With this in mind, it’s hard to believe that the very foods that made us human would ultimately lead to the chronic diseases we see today, as the mainstream nutritional advice would have us believe.
I am not saying that all plant foods have led to the increase in chronic disease, at least not those consumed in their natural form, but rather that the products derived from the processing and refining of foods such as grains and seeds into flours and vegetable oils, as well as sugar, have played an integral part in this. These processed ingredients are commonplace in food items found in supermarkets and, as they do not come from animals, are often touted as being the healthier option. In fact, the EAT-Lancet report (2019), which influences the nutritional guidelines of most western countries, suggests that we should only be eating on average 14 grams of red meat per day, and at the same time recommends that we consume of 232 grams of whole grains and up to 31 grams of added sugars (5). The reasoning for this may be more financially and ideologically driven than scientifically.
How to Construct an Animal-Based Diet
When constructing an animal-based diet it helps to picture a pyramid. Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy (if you can tolerate it) are at the bottom, constituting the bulk of the diet. Vegetables are in the middle, and the ones you select for consumption should be based upon level of plant toxicity and personal tolerance. Refined carbohydrates and fruit are at the top – these foods should be eaten more sparingly, and in smaller quantities.
The exact macronutrient ratios will vary as they are dependent upon an individual’s goals and preferences, but a day’s worth of food consisting of 50% of calories from fat, 30% from protein, and 20% from carbohydrates is a good starting point if one is looking to improve their health.
As a member of the ProLongevity team I’m excited to help guide those on their animal-based diet journey. Please don’t hesitate to ask our team for support.